Have you ever really seen the Milky Way? By that I mean not just some of the galaxy’s brightest stars, but the Milky Way in all its majesty: a bright, oblong stripe that dominates the nightly heavens. Its thousands of individual white specks twinkle through a thin off-white soup which glows with green, magenta, and blue highlights.
This is what I saw at midnight during the summer of 2018. I was leading a trekking trip through the high mountain huts near Zermatt, Switzerland, as part of AMC’s Adventure Travel program. We were staying at the Schönbiel Hütte, a traditional mountaineering hut perched on a high plateau directly opposite the Matterhorn itself. On this clear, magical night the Milky Way was so bright that it illuminated the slopes of the Matterhorn with its soft, multi-colored rays. I was completely overwhelmed by its technicolor brilliance.
Participants in AMC’s Adventure Travel (AT) program find their own unique connection to the wonderment of nature on every trip. The program’s mission is to run active outdoor adventures throughout the world, primarily for AMC members. Specially trained AMC volunteer leaders create and lead hiking, cycling, skiing, and paddling trips from the Alps of Switzerland to the prairies of outer Mongolia. The program, which has been active for over forty years, runs approximately 50 trips per year with typically 10 to 14 participants per trip. Beyond the adventure component, many trips include cultural exploration, education, conservation, and Leave No Trace elements. Participants travel with others who share these common interests. The program is run at cost, offering AMC members an exceptional value.
My interest in AT was first piqued through attending AMC Boston Chapter activities beginning in 2000. Although I could hike in the White Mountains alone, I soon realized that hiking in a group is both safer and much more fun. An early highlight was a staff-led, multi-day trek from AMC’s Lonesome Lake Hut to Lakes of the Clouds hut. I was hooked. After several years of joining Chapter day hikes, I ventured out of the Northeast to attend a few backpacking trips in the western United States developed and led by AT leaders. The 1-to-2-week trip format appealed to me because it allowed enough time to immerse oneself in spectacular natural surroundings and to form real friendships that only come about after spending extended, quality time together.
My breakthrough leadership experience came from my first international Adventure Travel trip in 2008. I participated in a Tour de Mount Blanc expedition, a two-week hut-to-hut trek that circumnavigates that internationally recognizable mountain. We trekked through France, Switzerland, and Italy staying in mountain huts and small family-run hotels along the way. This was my “eureka moment.” I enjoyed the trip immensely and I realized that I could lead trips like the one I was on. Because I had lived in Europe for four years and spoke some French and German, I thought I could add special cultural value and insights to trips I would lead.
From that point forward, my leadership journey moved quickly. I spent three years serving as a hike leader with AMC’s Boston Chapter. I passed the Adventure Travel leader training requirements which included being a chapter leader for at least one year, a training weekend and a multi-day Chapter trip complete with surveyed participant feedback. In 2011, I led my first trip, a trek along the Alta Via II in the Dolomites in Italy’s northeast corner. Besides being a tremendous mountaineering experience, this trip taught me the importance of both rigorous trip planning and the management of group dynamics and expectations on multi-week trips. In subsequent years I’ve led hiking trips in Europe’s alpine region, cross-country skiing tours in Austria, a cycling adventure in New Zealand, and many more. In total, I’ve guided 27 trips to 24 unique destinations involving around 300 fellow AMC members.
I’ve grown to appreciate two main features of the Adventure Travel program: its community of leaders and its self-governance. Leaders come from all Chapters. We meet four times a year, these days often on Zoom, to review trips and discuss future policies. Attending these meetings and sharing ideas as to how to improve the program led me to become program vice-chair in 2014 and in 2015, the chair. The program has seen real growth since then. From 2014 to 2019 we will have increased the number of trips by around 50 percent while maintaining consistently high customer satisfaction ratings.
Just as the Adventure Travel program was hitting its stride, the COVID-19 crisis erupted. With the support of AMC management we immediately brought home all participants currently traveling and canceled many future trips. This last action incurred substantial vendor costs not offset by participant revenue: participant safety was the paramount consideration. We offered vouchers to anyone whose trip was cut short or canceled, keeping roughly 75 percent of participants involved in the program until travel restrictions were relaxed. Sixteen months after closing down the program completely and canceling or rescheduling 60 trips, we are again running trips in the second half of 2021 in both the U.S. and Europe.
As with many volunteer endeavors, the more you give, the more you get. I found a wonderful community of worldly, friendly Adventure Travel leaders. I’ve traveled around the world, bringing with me many participants who later became true friends. The goal of being able to do strenuous hiking has motivated me to maintain a high level of physical conditioning. My interest in photography was rekindled. Even my German has improved through consistent use and instruction. Most importantly, I deeply enjoy sharing unique, meaningful, and active travel experiences with my many participants and fellow leaders. The adventure continues.